Texas judge orders prison to cool down

An inmate at Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, Texas, says the concrete floor is more comfortable than his bunk because of the heat.

Story highlights

  • Inmates at Wallace Pack Unit sue for relief from heat
  • Texas attorney general says sufficient mitigating measures in place

(CNN)Texas is famously hot and its prisons are no exception, especially in the summer months. So much so that a federal judge has ordered one prison to cool off for the sake of inmates' health.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has 15 days to come up with a plan to house some 500 "heat-sensitive" inmates at Wallace Pack Unit in living quarters exceeding no more than 88 degrees. The ruling, issued Wednesday by US District Judge Keith Ellison, also calls for easy access to respite areas for the remaining 1,000 inmates at the unit, which is located about 75 miles northwest of Houston.
The preliminary injunction stems from a lawsuit filed in 2014 seeking cooler temperatures for inmates, citing a spate of deaths in the previous three years.
    In 2016, the heat index at the unit surpassed 100 degrees on 13 days and hovered around the 90s degrees for 55 days, the ruling notes. No heat-related deaths have been reported at the unit, but at least 23 men have died because of heat in TDCJ facilities since 1998, Ellison wrote. Intermediary measures are necessary to avoid cruel and unusual punishment, he said.
    "... the Court does not order defendants to reduce temperatures to a level that may be comfortable, but simply to a level that reduces the significant risk of harm to an acceptable one," Ellison wrote.
    Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton vowed to appeal the ruling, saying the state has taken significant measures to mitigate the effects of the sweltering conditions.
    Inmates are allowed to wear shorts and t-shirts in housing areas during summer months, the ruling notes. They can seek relief in air-conditioned areas, including an infirmary, administration offices, visitation areas, the education department and the barbershop.
    But, after a nine-day hearing in June 2017, Ellison concluded the measures are insufficient to combat the risk of serious injury or death in summer months.
    In his ruling, the judge quotes Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's famous line about Siberian prisons: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
    "Prisoners are human beings with spouses and children who worry about them and miss them," Ellison continues. "Some of them will likely someday be shown to have been innocent of the crimes of which they are accused. But, even those admittedly guilty of the most heinous crimes must not be denied their constitutional rights. We diminish the Constitution for all of us to the extent we deny it to anyone."
    According to the ruling, TDCJ argued at the hearing that its mitigation measures have successfully reduced the number of heat-related illnesses in the Pack Unit. Those measures include access to respite areas, ice water, industrial and personal fans, cool-down showers and wellness checks, the ruling said.
    But inmates testified at the hearing that the respite areas can handle only a fraction of men in the unit, according to the ruling. Even then, the men are often forced to stand and move quickly from one respite area to another.
    One of those inmates is 71-year-old Richard King. He suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. During the summer, he testified that he sweats profusely, making it difficult to write letters because the moisture drips all over his paper, the ruling states. When he lies down, sweat pools in his eyes.
    He finds that it is often cooler to lie on the concrete floors than in his bunk, because his personal fan blows hot air and does not have a cooling effect.
    While he has never been denied access to respite areas, he testified that he has been discouraged by the constant movement and standing, which can be difficult given his age and disabilities. Sometimes, corrections officers limit his time in the barbershop to 15 to 20 minutes, he testified, according to the ruling.
    Paxton said it could cost TDCJ up to $20 million to retrofit the Unit with a permanent air conditioning system. The ruling does not require prison officials to install air conditions throughout the prison. It suggests that staff could adjust housing for "heat-sensitive inmates" such as the elderly and disabled to place them in cooled dormitories.
    "The judge's ruling downplays the substantial precautions TDCJ already has in place to protect inmates from the summer heat," Attorney General Paxton said.
    "Texas taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to pay for expensive prison air conditioning systems, which are unnecessary and not constitutionally mandated. We'll appeal the decision and are confident that TDCJ is already doing what is constitutionally required to adequately safeguard offenders from heat-related illnesses."